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Week in perspective;The week in education;Briefing;News amp; Opinion

This week... * Schools enter the action zones. * Army recruitment drive. * Weddings on the wane.

NEW TECHNOLOGY took a leap forward in British education with the announcement of a network of hi-tech learning centres in deprived areas and the launch of the first "virtual" education action zone.

The action zone, one of 41 new zones announced this week, will connect 11,000 pupils in 24 schools in Kent and Somerset, featuring the best teachers on video and the Internet. Each pupil and teacher in the "virtual" zone will receive a laptop computer, creating an online educational community allowing collaboration and networking between schools.

Education action zones - local partnerships between schools, parents and business - are meant to be educational test-beds, boosted by private finance, in areas of high disadvantage and low achievement. Each receives pound;500,000 a year from the Government for three years, with a further pound;250,000 if they succeed in raising pound;250,000 from private sources. They have to meet tough targets on improving academic performance and cutting truancy and exclusions.

Most of the existing 25 zones are run by local education authorities, despite earlier Labour hopes that business or parents would take the lead. This week, ministers took heart from the fact that nearly half of the successful new bids had come from schools rather than local authorities, showing that local communities and headteachers were taking the initiative. But Conservative politicians were quick to point out that only two of the zones were business led and Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said Government attempts to persuade parents to run the zones had failed.

Also situated in areas of deprivation will be the 47 hi-tech learning centres the Government is setting up in libraries with the help of pound;2.5million from Bill Gates, the billionaire head of Microsoft.

Another glitch in the computer world emerged this week when schools and colleges complained of problems with online university applications. The software used by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for its electronic application system just isn't compatible with the rather less than state-of-the-art computers in many schools and colleges, it seems.

Also aiming to cut out the form-filling and red tape of normal enlistment procedures is the Army, which is planning to set up a recruitment scheme on the Internet. This will enable potential soldiers to log on for information and be invited to enlist through the website.

Army recruiting chiefs are also turning to young-offender institutions in an effort to cut a shortfall of 5,000 soldiers, mainly in infantry regiments. Two young-offender institutions - at Dover in Kent and Wetherby in West Yorkshire - have been selected for a pilot scheme in which inmates serving no more than two years will take part in a 12-week Army training course to see if they are suitable.

Meanwhile, the growing unpopularity of marriage, even among the more affluent and highly educated, is highlighted in a new report from the Office of National Statistics. It reveals that the number of unmarried couples with children has tripled to nearly 600,000 in seven years, so that children in eight out of every 100 homes are now being brought up by partners living together rather than legally married.

As for lone mothers, the Labour Force Survey discloses that their number rose by 50 per cent, from 1.15 million to 1.73 million, between 1990 and 1997. Some 643,000 lone mothers have never been married, says the report.

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